A combination of factors – including the return of use-them-or-lose-them slot rules at Ronald Reagan National Airport and more opportunities for international service at Washington Dulles – has the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority bullish on the future.
But all will hinge on COVID.
Airports Authority officials presented a largely upbeat forecast for the near term during its monthly board meeting on Oct. 20, with authority chairman Jack Potter saying the two airports are “continuing to climb back to pre-pandemic levels,” and should approach those levels during the upcoming holiday season.
His hope? “Get COVID behind us, and do it as quickly as possible,” Potter said.
Time will tell: Passenger counts last November and December for the two airports combined stood at 1 million in November and 1.1 million in December, each down about 73 percent from the same pre-COVID period in 2019.
At Reagan National, which has been as adversely impacted by the pandemic as any airport in the country, Oct. 31 will bring an end to a federal-government waiver that had been in place for the past 18 months, allowing airlines to run less service than the number of take-off and landing slots they have been allocated. Going forward, it will be the usual process – airlines have to use all their slots, or risk having them taken away.
Airlines were using just 25 percent of their slots at the start of the year. That number kept creeping up incrementally if modestly throughout the year, but with the return to use-it-or-lose-it policies will see Reagan National return to 98 percent of daily flights and 99 percent of available seats that airlines had run two years before, according to Airports Authority officials. Passengers will be able to pick from more than 400 flights per day to just over 100 destinations.
(Depending on how things evolve, that plethora of flight options may prove beneficial to local travelers, as airlines may be willing to lower prices in order to fill up the 45,000 seats they will be operating at the airport on a typical November day.)
At Washington Dulles, which saw less of a drop-off in domestic passengers during the pandemic than did its older sibling Reagan National, the average 264 domestic departures per day in November will be at 98 percent of 2019 levels. (There are no slot restrictions at Washington Dulles; airlines can fly as much or as little as they want. And a number of low-cost domestic carriers are starting service at Dulles.)
On the international front, things also are improving at Dulles, with the number of daily departures scheduled for November at 74 percent of November 2019 figures. That rate rises to 84 percent in December.
On the near horizon at Dulles is new service to Nigeria (Lagos) and Barbados. Additional service to Jordan (Amman) and Germany (Berlin) is slated to start next spring. Staff from the airport recently attended an international-airline trade show in Milan, Italy, pitching Dulles as a suitable spot as international service starts to ramp up after its COVID lockdown.
Add it all up, and the situation “brings new optimism” throughout the authority, said Chryssa Westerlund, acting vice president and chief revenue officer.
Westerlund told MWAA board members that, in several non-aviation areas, the authority is outperforming its budget expectations (if not yet back to pre-COVID levels). Concession revenue is up $4.3 million from budget since the start of the year, an increase of 73 percent, while parking revenue so far this year is running $10.3 million above estimates.
It adds up to “a lot of positive news” that represents “hopefully progress,” authority chairman Bill Sudow said.
Though run by the regional authority, the two airports themselves remain owned by the federal government.